Thomas Thompson fought the state of California for 17 years to stay alive.
Strapped to a gurney inside San Quentin prison’s death chamber early Tuesday, poison trickling into his veins, Thompson did not seem quite ready to give up.
He craned his neck to peer out the windows of the prison’s converted gas chamber at half a dozen friends who had come to say goodbye. His Adam’s apple bobbed, his lips mouthed words not heard through the thick steel and glass. He smiled. No tears came.
As friends sobbed, Thompson’s head finally settled and his eyes closed. Among the witnesses were the two brothers of Ginger Fleischli, the 20-year-old Orange County woman Thompson was convicted of raping and murdering in 1981. They stared stoically, somber, finally securing an elusive justice.
At 12:06 a.m. Tuesday, less than five minutes after it began, Thomas Martin Thompson was declared dead. He was the fifth man executed in California since capital punishment resumed six years ago, the third by lethal injection.
It ended a drawn-out and fiercely fought death penalty struggle. Thompson was gone, but he died insisting that he was innocent of his crimes. Even in death, Thompson made sure that point was underlined.
In a final statement to San Quentin Warden Arthur Calderon, Thompson called for a halt to capital punishment, criticized Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren for so doggedly pursuing his execution and suggested that Fleischli’s real killer would one day be identified.
“For 17 years, the attorney general has been pursuing the wrong man,” Thompson said in a statement Calderon read afterward. “In time, he will come to know this. I do not want anyone to avenge my death. Instead, I want you to stop killing people. God bless.”
Lungren, Fleischli’s older brother, Jack, and others said Thompson’s execution was a proper punishment for a man who had extinguished the life of a sunny young woman on the cusp of adulthood.
“Let there be no mistake about it: Mr. Thompson is a guilty man,” Lungren said, saying that the evidence was overwhelming. Ginger Fleischli, he said, was “a 20-year-old Californian who did not deserve to die.”
Holly Wilkens, the deputy attorney general who for a decade marshaled the state’s case against Thompson, said the execution was “a matter of justice being served.” She said the public should not have doubts even though Thompson never admitted guilt or remorse.
The evidence, she said, was damning, from Thompson’s claims of sleeping through the murder to his arrest in Mexico with handcuffs in his possession after Fleischli’s body was found marred by shackle marks on wrists and ankles.
“We have to be comfortable with accountability,” Wilkens said. “People have stopped focusing on what he did, they’ve forgotten about the victim. And they shouldn’t. That’s the problem with the process taking 17 years. People lose sight of the victim.”
A picture of the victim was tucked in Jack Fleischli’s pocket Tuesday as he watched Thompson take his final breaths.
“I wanted her with me,” he said. “I wasn’t there to grandstand. It was a private thing between me and myself.”
Fleischli said the execution gave him a sense of closure, of finality to a roller-coaster process he watched in bitterness for year after agonizing year.
“We feel no sadness for this man,” he said. “Tom Thompson’s punishment was long overdue. There will be no more fabricated stories to delay the process.”
But for those who believe in Thompson’s innocence, the execution represented another sign that America’s system of justice has veered onto a dangerous course. With the courts taking a harder line and Congress working to quicken the appeals process, they argued, more and more innocent men and women could be marched to a state-sanctioned death.
“I do believe in my heart he was innocent,” said Andy Love, one of Thompson’s appellate attorneys. “He got such a raw deal from the beginning, from the lousy representation at trial to the manipulation by the state, to the procedural technicalities applied by the courts to deny a new hearing.”
Thompson’s friends echoed such views. In the dimly lit viewing area outside the death chamber, the only open emotions on display were their mournful sobs.
The process was carried off with perfunctory dispatch. About 50 witnesses--state officials, attorneys, the victim’s brothers, 13 members of the media--fanned out in the eerily intimate oval room surrounding the death chamber.
At 12:01 a guard slid open a small steel plate on a door and whispered to technicians that everyone was in place. With that, two guards pulled open two curtains on curving rods, revealing the decommissioned gas chamber, an antiquated capsule of forged iron and rivets with large viewing windows.
Inside was Thompson, wearing blue denim prison garb and gray socks and lying on a padded gurney, his body held tightly in place by taut Velcro straps.
Only his head--shaved to a stubble--was unrestrained. And as the curtain opened, he strained to lift it and see the friends who came to be with him as he died.
A guard announced that the execution would begin. The first of three drugs that would render Thompson unconscious--then stop his breathing and finally his heart--began streaming through twin intravenous tubes strapped to both arms with clear medical tape and cotton swabs.
For two minutes there seemed to be no effect. Thompson struggled to raise his head three times, mouthing words to his friends. A broad smile creased his mustachioed face. His friends smiled back.
Witnesses said they could not hear, but it was easy to read Thompson’s lips.
“I love you,” he said.
One friend, Rita Barker, began sobbing. Barker, an attorney who got to know Thompson in recent years with visits to San Quentin, blew him a kiss. Bill Arzbaecher, another lawyer who became Thompson’s friend while working on his case in the early 1990s, put a consoling arm around Barker as a guard motioned for quiet.
Thompson’s head tired and dropped, but he lifted it again. Finally, it settled onto the table and his eyes closed forever. He gave a cough, a few fluttered breaths, then all movement stopped.
By then, Barker and Arzbaecher had slumped into a crouch, their heads bowed. Two other longtime acquaintances--a minister’s son from the church Thompson attended as a youth and the man’s wife--also crouched and wept. Lynne Coffin, a law partner of Love’s, stood arm in arm with Peggy Harrell, the minister who had been with Thompson nearly to the final moments that he was led into the death chamber.
Jack Fleischli and his younger brother, Matthew, sat stoically through it all, thinking of their sister’s death and the life she might have led.
To hear additional impressions of the execution from staff writer Eric Bailey, go to The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/execution